Recently, I grappled with the tarot parallels that Sodalis incorporated, and how these elements of Sodalis impacted the experience.
I'll start on my soapbox, here. When I design a game, I envision the experience I want to take players on. All of the mechanics should enhance or reinforce that experience. Ultimately, to me a game is a system designed to create an experience.
There are two aspects that I want the players of Sodalis to experience: creativity and collaboration. For collaboration, Sodalis was played in teams; allowing for players to communicate and work together to achieve victory. Creativity was incentivized through reversals.
Giving a Reading
If you are familiar with tarot, you might have heard of reversals: cards in an upside down state have a different meaning than their right-side-up state.
Sodalis implements the idea of reversals in a mechanical sense. By flipping a card upside-down, players could choose between two different effects the card could have.
This is the primary element of how Sodalis encourages creativity. Players make several small either-or decisions, resulting in a deck that is entirely their own. This element was vital to the game, and the connection to tarot was cemented through this implementation. Decks featured nine cards, six of which had reversals. This allowed players to decide what kind of playstyle they would take for the game, possibly influenced by the champion choices of their opponents or allies.
The Why Of It All
Besides the clear tarot parallels, there are a few pragmatic reasons why I chose to put reversal effects on the same side, and on the same end of the card.
The art is highlighted by the card.
As a Magic: the Gathering player, the art of that game is astounding, and equally astounding is the lack of real-estate the cards reserve for the art. I wanted to make Sodalis beautiful, and make that beauty clear throughout the game.
The reversed card and the standard card are visually distinct.
As a game becomes more popular (something I am hopeful Sodalis will experience), players will learn the details of cards and commit them to memory, needing only a slight visual or audial cue to recall that information- such as the name or art. If the reversed and standard cards are too visually similar, no amount of memory would allow an experienced player to define a card from across the table- they would have to lean in to look or ask.
Let's look at an approach that many suggested- Reversals on each end of the card:
If I were to blur the card and shrink it, the way it might be seen from across a table, it is very difficult to tell one mode from the other, as only the title and the art's known orientation are signals. The art itself is also seemingly cramped, no longer drawing the focus of the viewer.
Keeping cards separate.
As Sodalis uses pre-constructed decks, cards are meant to be played in specific contexts- by specific Champions. Telling one card belonged to a particular deck and not another was important, as manufacturing or day-to-day use could shuffle cards together. Relying on color would be difficult for colorblind individuals, and "art style" was too vague to be infallible. To remedy this, the card backs were used.
Each champion had a symbol, and each card could be sorted by symbol to reconstruct the decks.
"I Need Space"
...player and designer alike cried. Multiple textboxes was "information overload" for new players, trying to look for any sense of intuition to the card, and squinting their eyes to read the proper text box. As a designer, fitting two abilities on the same card led to both being very simplistic. I would rely on non-reversal cards to create more nuanced or innovative abilities, which left the primary point of meaningful decisions as a boring choice between two near-identically bland effects.
Would you like Vanilla or Vanilla Bean?
During a playtest, I heard the familiar suggestion of putting the reversals on the front and back instead of only the front. I gave my reasons, but we started brainstorming. I realized I could put the Champion symbols on the front to distinguish between decks, and I could use light text on a dark background to make the reversal visually distinct.
This realization led to the following change:
The art is maintained as the centerpiece, while the effects are freed into being nuanced with the additional design space. The symbols are available as an indicator for who the card belongs to, and clearly identified as a reversal from across the table. And my favorite part: I have new space for flavor text:
The only loss is the clear parallel to tarot from the first design. A playtester who was familiar with tarot experienced Sodalis for the first time after these changes were made. They wanted more of a tarot feel and suggested that the two effects be on the same face, oriented by turning the card upside down! Austin has left the chat.
I feel that game designers must balance theme with the mechanic, and though this game is inspired by tarot, I would not call it a Tarot-themed game. How do you feel about these changes? Was it a step forwards or backwards to you?
Looking forward to hearing from you, and I hope to see you across the (digital) table in a playtest. Join the Sodalis Discord Channel for playtests, events, and updates. Be safe and roll criticals always,